In Buddhism, and in many spiritual communities, a key role is ascribed to teachers and to those who study and train with them. The former are transmitters of the Dharma and the latter are receivers of it. However, the terms transmitters and receivers does not here mean exactly what the worldly mind tends to make of it. Disciples are also vitally important supports to the life and work of the teacher.
The Dharma is not simply a set of ideas. It is a lived life and a mystic way, a Tao. Nor is it a stereotyped life. Not all teachers sit under bodhi trees. We could say that it is a fullness of life. This fullness is transmitted, but in such a transmission there is no thing that is given - no commodity is involved. The traditions of India, whether Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Buddhist all emphasise darshan. Darchan means being in the presence of the teacher. One acquires the Dharma directly from being with the teacher just as he or she has acquired it by contact with other former teachers. It is a contagion of spirit.
Teacher-Disciple & Teacher-Student
For this reason there is a crucial difference between students and disciples. Students are consumers of what a teacher teaches. They do seek and receive a commodity. Furthermore, they take what they like and leave the rest. Their commitment is temporary and instrumental. There is nothing wrong about this, but it is a limited function. Typically a student is somebody who does a course. There is a beginning and an end to the course. When the course is over the student goes his own way. I have been a student on many courses. Mostly I cannot remember the names of the teachers. I acquired knowledge or skills and I, or somebody else, paid for me to study. Essentially the relationship is similar to a customer in a shop.
A disciple is something else. A disciple is an adopted child. When the scriptures refer to "a man or woman of good family" they mean the family of the Dharma. The child will carry on the family farm. His or her investment is different from that of a hired hand.
Just as there are students and disciples, there are two different meanings to the word teacher. There are teachers who teach, perhaps in schools or universities, who might not even be Buddhist, but who teach Buddhism in an academic way. A student going to such a teacher may learn a lot about Buddhism. This is quite different from having the Dharma transmitted to one. It is an academic exercise. It may even be an advantage for such a teacher to not be a Buddhist. From the point of view of the academy, one can do religious studies more objectively if one is not a devotee or believer.
Since the word guru has been debased by popular usage and the term lama is restricted to the Tibetans, we currently have no good single word noun for a spiritual Buddhist teacher. For learners, the term disciple does still work. We can describe the two modes, therefore, as teacher-disciple relationship and teacher-student relationship.
The relationship between disciple and teacher lasts forever - “through all bardoes, through all lives”. This is true even if, in this life, there were to be only one meeting between the two people. It is a heart to heart connection in which Dharma is transmitted. Once there has been such, there is karmic affinity. Of course, when such a connection exists, the disciple wants to be with the teacher as much as possible, but what really is possible depends on circumstances. The idea of contagion is a good analogy, though. One can get infected by a short encounter, or a long one.
Teachers are Each Unique
Teachers are not all the same. When I think of my teachers, Kennett Roshi established an order of celibate monastics and used the terminology of medieval Christianity. Saiko Sensei ran a three generation family temple and stressed always the close connection between Dharma and psychology. Trungpa Rimpoche made massive adaptations to Tibetan tradition in order to make the Dharma available to people living in the materialist society of contemporary America. Nai Boonman taught tranquil abiding. Thich Nhat Hanh reformulated the whole of Buddhism into the idiom of mindfulness.
My heart to heart connection with each of these great figures was, in each case different, yet, in another sense, always the same. The inspiration was the same. The style was always different. There is not one single way of being Buddhist and Buddhism is not a standard from of institution. Buddhism generates many institutions - organisations of many kinds - but they are vehicles, not a destination. Those who think that the vehicle is the important thing may play a part, but they have missed the essence of what is happening. The purpose of a teacher is not to create a perfect organisation. Teachers may, therefore, create many organisations, or none at all, and what they create may follow a pattern, or might not, but, whether it does or not, the Dharma is not the pattern - that is merely superficial.
Lectures are a Lesser Part of Teaching
So, as a teacher, my role and mission is to live love and thereby transmit the contagion that I received from my teachers. However, one transmits to different people in different ways. There is a story about a man who goes to a monastery where there is a teacher that he wants to learn from. He is given a job in the temple. After some time he goes to the teacher and says, “Why do you never teach me?” and the teacher says, “When was I ever not teaching you?”
“Teaching” may even not be the most suitable word, except that I do not know another better one. In a sense the teacher is always transmitting Dharma in the same sense as an infectious person is always spreading their disease. Some may catch it and others not. It depends how much immunity they have. Some may come as students and go on to become great disciples and wonder how that happened. Some may fancy themselves as disciples, but never really be anything more than students, gleaning only for personal advantage.
The Koan of Being a Disciple
If the trainee is not seeking personal advantage, what is she doing? Good question! This is an important koan for anybody who gets caught up in this business. Why am I here? Of course, why am I here with this teacher? is also: Why am I here in this life? Now this is a koan because the person has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. When Shakyamuni was enlightened he turned the stick around. Or, to change the metaphor slightly to the one that he used, he got hold of the other end of the snake and, doing so, stopped getting bitten and poisoned. The teacher would like the student to get hold of the right end of the Dharma. He has several means at hand for helping the disciple to do so, but can never force or guarantee results. One method is to give the newcomer plenty of rope. Another is to give the disciple responsibilities so that life teaches. Another is that the disciple cares for the teacher and so learns altruism and compassion. Another is through the example of the teacher’s life.
This does not necessarily mean that the teacher exhibits a life of conventional morality nor conformity to the role expected of a guru. Often they don’t. However, they exhibit being fully alive. This can lead to problems. Observers are liable to judge a teacher on the basis of conventional ideas, but the teacher is in a process of experimenting with life and may take risks with it that most people would be frightened of. Trungpa Rimpoche is a prime example, but there are many others. A teacher is likely to live a life that is unconventional in one way or another. Kennett Roshi was extrordinary in, as an English woman, going to an all male monastery in xenophobic, chauvinistic, immediately-post-war Japan and also in defying the trends of Western Buddhism when she got back.
Handling Personal Neurosis
A fifth way of showing the Way is that the teacher never comes to the end of the Dharma - he is always demonstrating it through his own koan which is his own encounter with impermanence and frailty. Reality is always presenting new situations and the teacher is a human being with a karmic history. These two currents mixing together generate the personal neurosis. Thus everybody is continually in process of giving rise to new neurosis. It is not the presence or absence of neurosis that distinguishes the awakened from the non-awakened - it is how they respond. To the person who is in the stream, the arising of the personal neurosis is a koan, because it arises in the midst of already established mindfulness, which is to say, religious consciousness. When this happens, it naturally leads to investigation of Dharma. By penetrating the neurosis, Dharma is revealed. If there is no pre-established religious consciousness, the arising of personal neurosis leads to a hardening of the sense of self. One’s problem is mistaken for one’s identity.
The would-be disciple might think that a teacher should be completely sorted out and not show any sign of neurosis. If you meet such a person, they are pretending. Neurosis is like dust settling. The worldly person accumulates the dust and builds castles with it. Walking the path is not a matter of being beyond the world. To use Dogen’s analogy, it is not like being so far out in the ocean that you lose sight of land.
A seeker may come to a teacher thinking to learn a particular technique. They think that Buddhism is meditation or mindfulness, or a particular sadhana or empowerment. They might want to acquire this spiritual property as a credential, or as a road to power of some kind, or as a solution to a personal supposed problem, such as stress. The teacher might offer something of the kind. This, however, is window dressing. It might get the passing stranger to enter the shop. The real Dharma, however, is hidden in a nondescript box on the third floor. In that box the seeker will discover her attachment to her own identity-agenda and burst out laughing.
There are as many motives as people. As the neurosis arises it brings with it the slightest hint that there is a hidden way, a way that is limitlessly mysterious and wonderful, a hidden treasure. The seeker has that treasure sewn into his garment. If he comes as a pauper he will go on to realise riches. If he comes with the air of somebody who knows something, well, they have their reward already - there is nothing for them in Heaven.
The Perfect Way
“The Perfect Way lacks for nothing, yet needs something,” said Master Keizan. It needs that we enact it. We enact it by ceasing with our acting. We enact it in the dance between a teacher and a disciple.
Teacher and disciple together are manifesting the Dharma. The love between them is the Way. Being a teacher is not an act, as on the stage, and no more so is being a true disciple. A really true disciple is already a teacher of gods and humans. A real teacher is a good disciple. This is a karmic affinity that endures beyond birth and death. It manifest in cleaning the dishes and stoking the fire, in translating a text or buying oranges.
The sun shining fills the yard.
The cherry tree does not know that it is happy.
The disciple is sweeping up the dust
- How wonderfully it sparkles!
A kind of Tao, yes.